Trista Baldwin (Rail): U R ★ (YOU ARE STAR) is not really “musical theater” or “theater” as we usually define it. How do you define it?
finkle: I call U R ★ a graphic novel musical for audiences of 3–6 people. But this is for lack of a better way to describe the experience. And that was not what I set out to do. To be quite honest, for a long time I didn’t know what I was doing.
Rail: Can you talk about the vision of the piece that formed in your head as you worked on it?
finkle: U R ★ began as an act of desperation.
I needed to blow myself up artistically and start again.1
I needed to reinvent, be naïve again.2
I needed to create something immediate and raw.
I needed to create an experience for an audience that was intimate, kinesthetic, scary, and ultimately uplifting.
I needed to be free.
Free of expectation, free to take big risks, free to express the things that terrify me.
I couldn’t sit at my desk anymore and write scenes.
I couldn’t sit in the theater anymore and just watch a show.
So for fun I started to record music and dialogue on Garageband. I had never used the software (and hadn’t played or made music since college) so there was a very steep learning curve (i.e.: a lot of recordings where I sound like a drowning cat)3 but I decided just to go for it.
I then made a rule for myself that I wouldn’t type anything—typing had become for me a constrictor, so I decided to write the story in magic marker. As soon as I started to do this I started to draw images—snapshots of moments, characters, actions, along with text.
This way of working felt oddly familiar to me, and as I thought back to my childhood I had a distinct memory of making work in a similar fashion. As a lonely child (insert sad violins here) I would write music on a little Casio and record the songs on a cassette player and then draw pictures to tell the story
I thought back to read-along books I used to love as a child. The book would come with a record that was to be played simultaneously while reading, and then a little bell/ding would go off every time you were to turn the page. I liked the idea of using a form that reminded me of childhood—that felt simple and obvious and maybe even a little naïve. I decided then that the piece should have four sides, like a double album, which also reminded me of childhood—the excitement of getting an album and reading all the liner notes and looking at all the images, the way the album would become an experience, a world for me to disappear into and discover secrets.
As I was doing all of this I started to realize that the content was forming on its own. I was thinking about freedom a lot (well I still think about freedom a lot). I thought about how darkness (whatever that means) pulls me away from happiness. That if unchecked I will be attracted to dark elements in the world that stop me from achieving happiness. I wondered how I could use this form to tell a story of freedom in a way that felt personal and also larger than life.
After drawing and making songs for about six months, I thought maybe I was going crazy so I invited friends over in small groups to hear and see what I was making.
Rail: I was lucky enough to be in one of those groups. I remember eating lentil soup made by fellow playwright John Walch, sitting in your small apartment, turning pages of this kind of graphic novel, while we listened to your voice, to music—
finkle: Yes! Everyone seemed to enjoy the experience of turning pages while listening to a soundscape. The conversation afterwards—both dramaturgical and emotional—became the second act of the piece. Audience wanted to stay long after the showing of work to talk about the vision they had for the piece, then talk about art in general, their own work and their own experiences of trying to find freedom large and small in their own life. I realized that one of the piece’s goals had to be this exchange. That audience is craving a way to connect—with each other, with the art, with the artist, but mostly importantly with themselves.
I thought a lot about this relationship with audience and how immediate it was. It feels so personal, like a secret I’m sharing.
Rail: It did feel personal, and I was very moved by that. Now it’s finding a way to more audience. How did the A.R.T. [American Repertory Theater] come to be a home for this piece?
finkle: With the help of LUCK and TIMING.
After presenting the piece in my apartment for a little over a year, I started to wonder if U R ★ could live outside my apartment and also what would that mean? I applied to the Orchard Project and was thrilled (and surprised) when they accepted me. The first afternoon I was there I showed the piece to Ari Edelson and Ariane Barbanell who are co- artistic directors of Orchard. Ariane also works at the A.R.T. as Director of Special Projects. She and I immediately felt artistically simpatico. She invited me to come to the A.R.T. and do the piece for people at the theater, and we could talk about it as a collective. I found the A.R.T., and in particular Ariane, to be very nurturing and inclusive. Part of my goal professionally with U R ★ was to be more active in all aspects of the production—from creating to marketing. The A.R.T. offered me the chance to do this, which has changed everything for me as an artist. It all just felt very natural and organic.
Rail: How has your original vision for STAR evolved as you work to premiere it at the A.R.T.?
finkle: The main thing that’s evolved is the “performance.” When I was doing the piece first in my apartment for friends I presented the show in a very casual way. I wanted to keep that sense of ease—like you’re just coming over to check out this little show and we’re friends.
Rail: You’re still doing U R ★ in an apartment.
finkle: Yes, U R ★ is being performed in an apartment, in artist housing at the A.R.T.
Rail: And your voice is still part of U R ★.
finkle: During my time at Orchard and my development workshops at the A.R.T. the question that kept coming up was who am I in the piece? I had decided for this project to change my professional name [from Kenny Finkle] to simply finkle4 and so the question became—are you finkle? Is finkle a character? Who is finkle????? So we spent a lot of time articulating the role of finkle (or rather highlighting the question) and giving the performance more formality.
The other major thing that’s evolved is the design of the show. We invited sound designer Bart Fasbender and lighting designer Michael Gottlieb to enhance the world of the piece. They joined the team last year before we did a mini run at the Orchard Project. Until then the sound had been played through a pair of computer speakers—and I kept feeling that the sound should be more immersive. And then I thought that there could be a way that lighting could transform a regular apartment into another kind of space. It would allow the audience to go on the journey more fully. The impact of both make the piece feel more like an experience—a journey, a ride, but neither are so overwhelming to take away from the homegrown DIY feel. We’re keeping that feeling.
Rail: I find U R ★ to be very exciting on its own—and totally thrilling in context with your body of work. How do you see H as reflection of your theatrical voice, or evolution of your voice ?
finkle: U R ★ is my reaching back to my most primal artistic work and stretching forward with experience, control, and an ever-increasing fury and vibrancy.
U R ★ pushed me to recognize that form and content were inextricably linked in my work. Often times I am exploring both at the same time and that one cannot live without the other. And then in addition to this I’ve started to think more consciously about scale and relationship to audience. These four things together—form, content, scale, and relationship to audience—I call my HEART MUST RACE formula. How can I make an audience’s heart race? What combination of these four creates the most powerful results?
Rail: What do you hope audiences might think or feel as they depart ★ at the A.R.T.?
finkle: I hope they feel
Shaken. Thrilled. Scared.
I hope they feel joy.
Heard and Seen.
I hope they feel their heart racing.
U R ★ by finkle will have a (sold-out) “sneak peek” production in April at the A.R.T., in anticipation of its Fall 2016 run. For more information about the play, and to get on the mailing list for future viewings, visit mynameisfinkle.com. For further details on the A.R.T.’s 2016 – 17 season, visit americanrepertorytheater.org.
- I had become disenchanted with writing (or at least trying to write) well made plays. I felt this pressure inside of me that was forcing me to try to write plays that would be produced in large spaces for the largest audience possible. I found this expectation to be stifling and started to wonder for myself how I could dismantle this and get back to writing from a truer place.
- I wanted to embrace all my perceived weaknesses and flip them on their head—turn them into strengths.
- I would sing in my living room with the windows open in the summer and my headphones on. I was stuck on one line for like two weeks—I’d just scream into the microphone: “I wanna fuck it up! I wanna fuck it up!” One afternoon I took my headphones off and I heard a neighbor—who may have been yelling at me for a while screaming back to me: “LEARN HOW TO SING!” I was like, I’m trying man, I’m trying so hard.
- I’ve always hated my last name—Finkle. Yuck. So I flipped it and created an alter ego named finkle, who is a pop star/auteur/a quieter gentler Kanye (because being loud doesn’t mean you’re a genius) who loves his name and uses it to let people laugh and cry and feel and change.
TRISTA BALDWIN is a playwright and co-founder of Workhaus Collective, which just wrapped up a decade of new work with its 25th production. Her own plays include Eye of the Lamb, American Sexy, Sand, Patty Red Pants and Chicks With Dicks: Bad Girls on Bikes Doing Bad Things.